Quote of the Week

On The Dangers of Literature

October 20th, 2008 · 2 Comments

One man stares in the dark abyss of literary example and wonders if great stories truly lift us, or if they might lead us down the wrong path:

I hope you are at least partly convinced by the power of my examples. Somehow, we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how literature empowers us. But the idea that great literature can improve our lives in any way is a con as old as culture itself. The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall. “Willing suspension of disbelief”? Code for: distract him while I lift his wallet. The government regulates drugs, alcohol and (finally) bad lending practices. How long can we continue to allow the totally laissez-faire dissemination of literature? Not even a warning from the surgeon general or the attorney general, or some sort of general, on the back of every book?

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On Making Connections

August 28th, 2008 · 3 Comments

We bring you this lovely quote from Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press. He addresses a topic near and dear to our hearts:

I was relieved to learn I wasn’t crazy, that the unorthodox cover worked, but once that relief wore off, I started to realize that far more reader interactions like that are necessary, that the conversation about books that goes on in our culture now, gorgeously exemplified by Jeff’s house here, needs also to be going on much, much more in the whole apparatus that surrounds the words, houses the words, frames the words, makes it more or less likely you’ll read the words. I’m sure most folks don’t want to see inside the sausage factory, but I’m betting there are far far more than we’re currently admitting to the sausage factory, and if we expect y’all to eat our damn sausages, we’re going to have to spend more time with you guys figuring out how best to make them.

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On The Future

August 18th, 2008 · 3 Comments

It might seem understandable if the publishing industry comes to view digital books as a threat, since their business is currently based on the concept of one copy, one sale — a business model that will be obsolete once books go digital. But if we play our cards right, and can convince book sellers and publishers to embrace this new technology, we could end up living in a world where it’s actually easier for writers to get paid, and where any book can be accessed instantly from any place on the planet — universal access to knowledge. Hasn’t that been the aim of literate people since the invention of the printing press?

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On Giving Youth A Chance

July 29th, 2008 · 5 Comments

Why is it that teenagers, being hit with puberty, peer groups, youth culture, adolescent growth, the weird world of education, and the oncoming threat of higher education, are expected to become avid readers?

Is it a case of “Oh, good, you’ve got five seconds to yourself, read this”? How is that better than throwing a tabloid newspaper at them, and calling it “reading”? Is any old extraneous thing, however irrelevant, OK, if it’s called “literature”?

People being driven into a state of terminal time management crisis are hardly likely to become enthusiastic readers. If they’re not interested, why not?

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On Same As It Ever Was

July 10th, 2008 · 1 Comment

To get a sense of how market trends are affecting publishing, it’s important to understand how those trends break from, but also mirror, those of the past. In the 1700s, when booksellers came to replace the aristocracy as the primary patrons of the literary arts in England, writers such as Henry Fielding and the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith decried the phenomenon as a “fatal revolution.”

Fielding wrote a dramatic satire on the subject called The Author’s Farce, and Goldsmith railed ceaselessly against book merchants even as he profited by them. To wit: “You cannot but be sensible, gentlemen, that a reformation in literature was never more necessary than at the present juncture, when wit is sold by the yard, and a journeyman-author paid like a journeyman-tailor.” Goldsmith argued that, while booksellers commissioned a greater number of works than did the aristocrats, the quality of writing was deeply compromised by the process of commercialization; literature was suffering a spiritual death as a result.

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On Visions of the Future

July 1st, 2008 · 3 Comments

The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively. Those who publish generic books for expedient purposes will face new competitors. Like the music companies, some of those publishers may shrink or die.

Many categories of books will be subsumed by digital media. Reference publishing has already migrated online. Practical nonfiction will be next, winding up on Web sites that can easily update and disseminate visual and textual information. Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it’s hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year. The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle.

Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.

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On Curation and Books and Models for the Future

June 16th, 2008 · Comments Off on On Curation and Books and Models for the Future

The big achievement of the club was to provide trusted guidance through the jungle of hyped books. Such guidance was not provided by the likes of Book Club Associates, which advertise in magazines. They offer broad selections to their members. As a result, their businesses are in decline. They lack anything like the firm imprimatur of a Richard & Judy. Book promotions didn’t really work, either. Prizes, in particular, suffered from an inherent bias towards the nebulous concept of the literary.

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On Belief Systems

June 9th, 2008 · Comments Off on On Belief Systems

This reminds me of a comment I heard from a music industry executive at a conference a couple of years ago. “One day there was the iPod and iTunes. The next day 20% of our business was digital. The day after that more than 50% of our revenues came from digital music. Yeah, we believe in digital music now.”

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On Publishing Manifestos…The Good Kind

May 14th, 2008 · 4 Comments

The locked-in perception of the book as a unit or a product has also led to digital ‘strategies’ which largely consist of the digitisation of existing print texts in order to create eBooks. This in turn has led to an obsessive focus on the reading device and a perception that the emergence of a ‘killer device’ will be a key driver in unlocking a digital future for books in the way that the iPod was, say, for music. This is a flawed perspective in a number of ways, not least because it fails to recognise the enormous amount of online or digital ‘reading’ that already takes place on non-book-specific devices such as desktop PCs, laptops, PDAs and mobiles, but also because it fails to recognise that the very nature of books and reading is changing and will continue to change substantially. What is absolutely clear is that publishers need to become enablers for reading and its associated processes (discussion; research; note-taking; writing; reference following) to take place across a multitude of platforms and throughout all the varying modes of a readers’ activities and lifestyle.

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On Language and Obstacles

May 8th, 2008 · Comments Off on On Language and Obstacles

As English increasingly becomes the language of business, native speakers feel, quite understandably, that they are at an advantage. But discussion often goes more smoothly when the native speakers leave the room – proceedings are not muddied by idioms and intuitive, unthinking use of slang. Conversation among non-native speakers may be more direct and pragmatic – correct, probably, yet stripped down and functional. The people who see themselves as facilitators are, in reality, obstacles.

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